Helicopter official pleads guilty on one fraud charge

One of two Carson Helicopter Inc. officials indicted on 22 federal charges related to a 2008 helicopter crash that killed nine people pleaded guilty to a single charge of fraud Monday in Medford's U.S. District Court.

Levi Phillips, 46, of Grants Pass and Steven Metheny, 42, of Central Point were indicted in January by a federal grand jury in Medford on charges they schemed to defraud the U.S. Forest Service.

On Monday, Phillips pleaded guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark D. Clarke to a single count of conspiring to defraud the U.S. Forest Service by falsifying information about the weight, balance and performance of four firefighting helicopters, including the Sikorsky S-61N that clipped a tree and crashed in August 2008.

Nine people died in what is to date the deadliest helicopter crash involving working firefighters in U.S. history. Seven of those killed were Southern Oregon firefighters.

Phillips' sentencing hearing will take place on April 14. He faces up to 20 years in federal prison and up to $250,000 in fines, according to Clarke.

The false information about the weight, balance and performance of Carson's helicopters was provided so the Merlin-based company could get $20 million in contracts, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Byron Chatfield.

Chatfield read into court record the requirements of Phillips' plea agreement with the government, including his obligation to cooperate fully with the investigation and to testify against Metheny. Otherwise, Chatfield said, the plea agreement will be voided.

"It is solely dependant upon his cooperation," Chatfield said.

Family members expressed relief to see someone accept responsibility for the deaths.

Nina Charlson's 25-year old son, Scott Charlson, was one of the firefighters killed in the crash. Charlson expressed her sorrow over the tragedy but said she is grateful Phillips has admitted his part in the scheme.

"Our one big hope is that this changes things," Charlson said. "We don't want history to repeat itself — the mess that greed has caused."

The crash occurred on a nearly 6,000-foot-high mountaintop near Weaverville, Calif., while the Sikorsky S-61N helicopter was ferrying out firefighters battling the Iron 44 fire in the Trinity Alps Wilderness.

A National Transportation Safety Board investigation showed the helicopter weighed more than 19,000 pounds when pilots tried to take off from a mountaintop clearing during the Iron 44 wildfire in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. If Forest Service guidelines had been followed, investigators said, the weight shouldn't have exceeded 15,840 pounds. It concluded in 2010 that Carson's deliberate understatement of the weight of its helicopter and lapses in safety oversight caused the fatal crash.

Phillips was the company's director of maintenance, reporting directly to Metheny, a former Carson vice president. Metheny remains charged with 22 counts of mail and wire fraud, making false statements to the Forest Service, endangering the safety of aircraft in flight, and theft from an interstate shipment.

The 25-page indictment says that roughly between March and October 2008, Metheny and Phillips submitted bid proposals on behalf of Carson Helicopters that contained information the two knew was false.

The bid proposals contained falsified weight and balance charts and falsely altered performance charts that were created by Phillips and submitted so the Forest Service could determine whether the helicopters met minimum contract specifications, court documents claim.

Prosecutors say Metheny knowingly distributed the false information to pilots and helicopter flight manuals for use in the field.

"The falsified charts were then used by pilots, unaware of the false nature of the charts, in performing firefighting flight operations, including calculating the helicopter's maximum payload capacity during firefighting operations, thereby endangering the safety of the helicopters in flight," court documents state.

When asked why the specifications were different than those on similar helicopters, the indictment says Metheny told the Forest Service the company had modified the engines to be more powerful.

"The helicopters were not weighed on the scales as represented, they were not weighed on the dates listed and they were not actually weighed as represented," the indictment states, adding one of the helicopters "was in a different country at the time of the alleged weighing."

As a result of these "materially false and fraudulent representations," Carson Helicopters got contract work totaling more than $20 million, federal prosecutors have said.

The helicopter performance information provided by Metheny "made it appear to reviewing (Forest Service) officials that the helicopters had greater performance capability during firefighting operations than they actually did and were capable of carrying a higher payload," the indictment states.

"As a result of the materially false and fraudulent pretenses, representations and omissions of fact by defendants, the (Forest Service) awarded helicopter contracts for firefighting operations to (Carson)," it states.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.

Share This Story